“A work of art is either decorative or deep and meaningful.”
This prejudice creates a lot of tension and defensiveness in the art world. But is there really a conflict between decorative appeal and meaning in art? Does art need to avoid decorative qualities in order to be meaningful?
Which art is not decorative?
Non-decorative art is typically seen in museums, rather than in public places or private homes. Often, such art does not seek to make harmonies visible, but conflict, they demand attention by shock, persistent repetition and out-of-tune-ness, which are used as symbols to comment on problematic issues: global warming, racism, suffering and injustices.
Such works aspire to be deep and meaningful, and many are very convincing productions, installations or happenings that give clear messages. Others seem to hope that the absence of decorative qualities, branded as superficial, is enough to suggest a deeper meaning.
What is decorative?
This is what the dictionaries say, including the prejudices: Ornamental, pretty, attractive, adorning, embellishing, for show, non-functional, serving an aesthetic rather than a useful purpose.
A work of art has to be beautiful, aesthetic, to be considered decorative. The fact that decoration and beauty can be only skin-deep or painted-on, has given the term ‘decorative’ a bad name. Also, beauty is not objective, it’s in the eye of the beholder. What we love is beautiful and everyone has different and very personal reasons for finding a work of art beautiful. We like art when it expresses a personal experience that we can share.
In contrast to art as expression, a decorative work has been made beautiful, and the word ‘decorative’ implies that there must be another, a more objective concept of beauty. Decorative art is not raw self-expression, but filtered experience, developed and refined according to cultural aesthetic norms or even for a universal experience of beauty – if there is such a thing.
To decorate might have been the oldest purpose of art. Objects, houses, important places and people were adorned to be marked as special or sacred. The more artful the decoration was, the higher the status of the adorned. The next step for art might have been illustration, to show and promote the devotion to god(s) and narrate the lives of the powerful. Art as self-expression is a relatively late development in any culture, and it’s at this point that ‘decorative’ became an insulting critique in the fine arts.
Decorative and Fine art
It seems contradictory that ‘decorative’ is considered to be aesthetic rather than functional, when the term Decorative Arts refers to artistically decorated yet useful objects like ceramics or textile art. As a result, the word ‘decorative’ is usually linked to applied art, where the art is ‘only’ decoration, a part of the work. In contrast, the term Fine Arts applies to works based on expression like paintings, drawings and photography, which are primarily an intellectual and emotional exercise with little practical function. These two art forms are not disconnected. Decorative art is often very expressive and fine art relies heavily on decorative elements.
Decorative, technically speaking
A decorative artwork typically consists of interesting patterns of line, forms and colour in symmetrical or asymmetrical designs. The representation of subject matter tends to be simplified (abstracted) in favour of the design. For example, artists like Gauguin and Matisse used decorative elements to neutralize the personality of the figures and to integrate them with the design, the background of the painting.
Design and abstraction, which both have decorative potential, are ways to compose a painting, creating a pictorial stability that prevents the meaning of a work being taken over by details, or by the identity of the subject matter. Because as soon as there is a figure in a painting, some viewers will get stuck on detecting who the person in the painting is, even though the figure might be there to represent an idea – or for the sake of an interesting design.
Some art is not striking in its design and composition, and we think it’s beautiful because it’s a portrait drawing of a person important to us. If our portrait is also beautiful to someone who does not know the model, it’s most likely because the portrait has a subtle but strong design, which could be called decorative. It may not be decorative in an ornamental sense, but the confidence of the lines may create an interesting structure that, because we don’t know the model and aren’t distracted by its identity, we perceive as beautiful.
The dictionary says: Artificial = made by humans; produced rather than natural.The motivation for art, if it’s functional or not, is not to imitate reality and nature, but quite the opposite. With art, we separate our experience from reality as we rearrange our physical and mental environment, sorting and ordering chaos, and bring it into a harmony which suits our human interpretations. By decorating an object, we take it out of the ordinary and give it meaning on our terms. Or by drawing and painting, we edit and distill a real-life experience until it represents and expresses our idea or impression.
Decorative by chance
Many artists will be so fully absorbed in the process to make their idea visible, that they are quite unaware of the decorative components they are creating. Although usually decorative work is contemplated to be made beautiful, decorative qualities can also be unintentional.
Every painting, no matter how realistic it may look, is composed of abstract elements: the lines, strokes and spots of colour. Apart from the meaning of the whole artwork, each of these abstract elements may be decorative and beautiful by themselves. The term decorative is usually used for contemplated designs, but often, it’s the spontaneous brushstrokes which are applied full of purpose to express an idea, that are stunningly beautiful independently as well as giving shape to the idea.
Expressive and decorative is not a contradiction, and if contemplated or spontaneous, the combination is very convincing and a powerful communicator, like beauty.
Natural things are beautiful without being decorative: a person, an animal, a landscape, etc. A flying bird is not decorative, and we would be poetic to call a sunset decorative. Yet, when we take a photograph of a sunset or paint a flying bird, it will be decorative if it’s beautiful.
For most people, the objective of art is to add beauty to our lives, and far from being superficial, beauty is often a key to understanding. When we suddenly understand something, we have a feeling that it is beautiful.
Art, including challenging and thought-provoking art, is an interpretation of reality, a selection of facts and ideas assembled to form a design. Composition is like music made from noise. We may not be able to explain how we appreciate art in technical terms, but we experience harmony, rhythm – or the lack of it.
Beauty is not always immediately evident, as it comes at different levels of complexities, some is simple and some is so intricate, that only experts can make out the harmonies. Decorative elements often have the ability to make extremely difficult things look very easy. In this way, ideas, relationships and perspectives that would be hidden without art become visible and can be communicated.
Decorative art plays an important role in societies and in different cultures, as generations of artists and artisans have developed vocabularies of decorative attributes and styles to establish their identity. Equally effective are the individually decorative elements in informal and spontaneous art. Not all art is equally accessible and social, but the more decorative an artwork is, the better are its chances to be appreciated or even understood.